No one loves election posters but the alternatives are worse
Posters have downsides but online targeted advertising has serious drawbacks
Election posters in Dublin, May 2007. Such posters are unsightly, intrusive and damaging to the environment. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA wire
No one loves election posters. They are unsightly, intrusive and damaging to the environment. However, posters may be somewhat like democracy which, as Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Posters are effective, first of all, because their sudden proliferation like mushrooms after rain reminds people there is an election or a referendum coming up. (It says something about the sad state of our alleged democracy that some people need posters to remind them of such events.)
Also, since up to 50 per cent of people do not open their doors to canvassers, posters are even more important in that they allow the public to become aware of minority parties and independents.
Large, established parties have an advantage both in funding and in public exposure. For example, I know fervent pro-life people who had heard of Renua but had no idea that Aontú was running candidates in the local election until they saw posters. Given that the candidates’ pictures appear on the ballot paper, becoming aware of the candidate’s face in advance is important.
On the other hand, corriboard posters do not degrade for about 400 years. Even though they can be upcycled into things such as flower pots, what politician wants her or his legacy to be a 400- year-old flower pot?
What could possibly be worse than posters?
Unregulated, online advertisements targeting voters, for starters, particularly when there is a huge imbalance in the funding poured into them. Funny how the media worry most about organisations that have the least access to mainstream media using them but such tactics are fine when used by people they like.
Barack Obama’s campaign was the first to exploit the power of digital targeting. It used exactly the same kind of mechanism that caused such a scandal with Cambridge Analytica. The only difference was the Obama campaign asked permission from the first link in the chain.
The 2012 Obama campaign created a Facebook app and when people signed up, they were asked for permission to scan their photos, friends’ lists and newsfeeds. So consent was given at that stage but the friends and contacts had no possibility of dissent. The information gleaned was matched with offline voting records.
The genius of the Obama nerds was to pull together personal information and add the power of social media
They then asked the person who had signed up to target specific messages to people on their feed. It allowed the campaign to move from attempting to target demographic segments such as so-called soccer moms, to identifiable individuals. As Tim Murphy of Mother Jones said, since about 2000, “campaigns didn’t just know you were a pro-choice teacher who once gave $40 to save the endangered Rocky Mountain swamp gnat; they also could have a data firm sort you by what type of magazines you subscribed to and where you bought your T-shirts.” The genius of the Obama nerds was to pull together every available scrap of personal information and add the power of social media.
In the Cambridge Analytica scandal, no permission was ever given because the original information was gained through a personality profile app.
However, both in Cambridge Analytica and the Obama campaign, for those in the second link of the chain, the results were identical – microtargeting without consent. This is a truly creepy process. The good news is that it may not as effective as hoped – yet.
In Hacking the Electorate, Eitan Hersh plausibly claims that the really important information came from publicly available voting records, not from knowing whether the voter was a dog person or a cat person.
Tribes sealed off from each other are easier to sell things to, and that includes ideas
Europe tends to have much tighter data protection laws regarding voting, but it would be naive to ignore the impact of targeted advertising.
However, the original manipulation that helps its effectiveness may come from the tendency of social media to create online groupthink bubbles. It suits social media giants because tribes sealed off from each other are easier to sell things to, and that includes ideas.
How much more innocent posters appear – especially when Fine Gael, which prides itself on its media savvy, kindly provided each of their candidates with an orange and yellow jester’s hat.
The Green Party had a good idea. It was to reduce the overall numbers of posters by adopting a common European practice of having designated areas where paper posters are displayed, usually under the stewardship of the local authorities. It allows for more information about the candidates and would reduce the festooning of every available pole. The suggestion went nowhere, probably because the larger parties like the advantage given by being able to afford both more posters and advertisements.
If there were a credible and full-time electoral commission, part of its remit could be to explore original ideas that replace some of the current functions of postering.
For example, it would probably not be ruinously expensive to have screens in public places such as post offices, credit unions and social welfare offices running short video clips advertising, not just the faces, but the policies of candidates. (Mind you, in the case of a long queue, it might be considered cruel and unusual punishment.)